Third Sunday after the Epiphany
There are two miracle accounts in our Gospel text. In the first a leper is cleansed. In the second a Roman centurion obtains healing for his servant. Both men provide us great examples of faith. Both men are also unlikely candidates to have faith. Where would we expect to find great faith? Well, in the church, of course – among the people of God. But neither of these men qualified. One was a leper; the other was a Gentile.
The leper was an outcast because of his condition, and it was serious. At the early stages, leprosy might only affect a small area. One could conceivably hide it or cover it up. But Luke tells us that this man was filled with leprosy. This is like someone who is eaten up with Stage 5 cancer. And because leprosy was infectious, he could not attend church or be near the people of God in any way. He was hardly where one would expect to find faith.
The centurion, on the other hand, was an outcast because of his birth. He was a Gentile. Many of us here were fortunate enough to be born into Christian homes. We were brought to the waters of baptism at an early age and taught God’s Word as children. Not this man. He had none of these great advantages. He was born to parents who lived outside of the church, apart from God’s covenant with his chosen people. Yet both men are examples to us because of their faith.
Behold, a leper came to [Jesus] and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” (Mt 8:2). In spite of the fact that he is an outcast, the leper approaches Jesus. He is riddled with corruption and disease yet he dares to come to Christ. Here is faith! Some of us at times have thought, “I shouldn’t go up to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. I’m a sinner. I’m unclean. I’m a leper.” But we should follow this man’s example. He dared to come to Jesus because he was unclean. It was his leprosy that drove him. Because he felt his impurity and unworthiness, he went all the more and cast himself upon the mercy of Christ. This is true faith, a living confidence in God’s kindness. Faith does not doubt that God wants to be kind and gracious. Instead, faith believes God when he says that he loves us and wants to grant us every blessing.
But the leper also understood something very important about the Christian life on earth. He said to Jesus, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” Yes, God has promised to deliver us from every evil. Yes, his Word tells us that one day we will be free from all sin and live with Christ for eternity. But there is no promise in Scripture that God will not permit us to suffer physical pain, loss, and disease while on earth. I know of no such word, and without it I can’t tell God what he must do for me. When it comes to what God wills, what he wants, we know He’s full of mercy because that’s what the Bible says. But we also know that God will allow us to suffer in order for our eternal good.
St. Paul had a thorn in his flesh. We don’t know exactly what that means, but we know it hurt. Paul pleaded three times with the Lord to have it removed, but it was not according to God’s will. He said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). In order to accomplish his perfect will in us, our loving heavenly Father allows suffering into our lives. But in the midst of that suffering, faith trusts that God’s will for us is only good and kind.
Is there anyone here whose life has gone according to plan every step of the way? I doubt it very much. When we’re kids, most of us dream of being rich and famous. None of us plans to encounter loss, heartbreak, or sickness in life. But God knows what we need in order to be drawn to him. Had your life gone according to plan, would you have needed Christ? I think not.
Now, should we pray for the things we want? Should we ask God for healing and relief from suffering? Yes, we should. Faith brings every need to God in prayer, but faith asks in such a way that it leaves everything to the gracious will of God. The truth is we don’t always know what we need. This is why the best and most faithful prayer is, “Thy will be done.” The leper believed that Jesus desired to be kind to him. He also knew that Jesus was God, that he had the power to cleanse his leprosy. But his prayer was, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” Jesus said, “I do will. Be clean.” In the same way, we ask our heavenly Father for the thinks we need and want. But whether he gives us these things or not, we trust that his good and gracious will is being done in our lives, and so we are content.
And what about the Centurion? He said to Jesus, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and my servant will be healed” (Mt 8:5–8). The centurion was very aware of his own unworthiness, but that didn’t stop him from going to Jesus. He believed that Christ’s goodness would be greater than his sins. More than that, he didn’t need Jesus to come with him to the house. It’s already amazing enough that a foreigner has heard of Jesus and believes that he has the power to heal. But this man trusts that the word of Christ is all he needs. He says to Jesus, “I know that health and sickness, death and life must obey you, just as my servants obey me. So only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
Here is the greatest kind of faith: that which clings to the Word of God alone. The centurion is our example. Instead of looking for God in places he has not promised to be, faith apprehends him in his Word. God speaks to us through the means he has appointed: the written word, the preached word, and the sacramental word. You can’t see words and that’s why faith is the evidence of things not seen; faith comes by hearing the Word of God.
How did the leper and the centurion get such great faith? They same way you did – as a gift from God. They heard the preaching about Christ, and the Holy Spirit created and awakened faith in their hearts. Both men were outcasts, but they were added to the family of God by faith. The unbelieving Jews thought that they were children of God because they were descendents of Abraham, but Abraham is the father of all that believe (Rom 4:11). We became children of God not by natural birth, but by hearing and receiving the Word of God by faith.
Jesus was amazed that the centurion had more faith than the natural born Israelites. And then he made this prophecy, “I say to you, many will come from east and west and recline at the table in the kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the [natural born] sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Mt 8:11–12). This is a prophecy about you. You are part of the many that has come from the east and west. You were not a natural born child of God. Instead, you were born into the darkness of sin and unbelief. You were riddled with uncleanness and corruption. You were not worthy that Jesus should enter under your roof. But by a miracle of faith, God brought you into his family by the adoption of baptism. You cried out, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean!” And Jesus answered, “I do will. Be clean.” And so you are. You are a precious child of God because the Word of Christ declares it. You are clean because his blood has covered all your sins. You are worthy to come to Christ and eat at his table, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because our Lord has made you worthy. By faith you hear his Word and believe that it is so. Amen.